Image: Lieberman Edwards Dean
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., center, speaks at the Albuquerque, N.M., debate. At left is Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C.; former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is at right.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 9/5/2003 1:10:28 AM ET 2003-09-05T05:10:28
ANALYSIS

The pressing question for the Democratic presidential contenders at their 90-minute joint appearance in Albuquerque, N.M., Thursday night was, can front-runner Howard Dean be stopped? The answer: perhaps not, but Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman will do his utmost to try. Lieberman stood out at the event with his attacks on Dean, at one point warning that “the Bush recession would be followed by the Dean Depression” if Dean were elected president and revoked international trade accords that did not conform to U.S. standards.

Lieberman said he found “stunning” a quote attributed to Dean in an interview in the Washington Post on Aug. 25 in which Dean said he would not have trade agreements with any nations that did not adopt American labor and environmental standards.

For good measure, after the debate in the “spin room” where reporters interviewed the candidates, Lieberman called Dean’s statement “outrageous” and “shocking.”

Dean answered Lieberman by saying the human rights, labor and environmental standards in trade accords need not be American, but could be those set by the International Labor Organization. He added, “We can not continue to ship our jobs to countries where they get paid 50 cents an hour with no occupational safety and health, no overtime, no labor protections, and no right to organize.”

MISLEADING THE AUDIENCE?

And the Dean campaign issued a statement that said Lieberman had misled the audience by using a paraphrase from the Washington Post story, not a direct quote from Dean.

Lieberman told reporters after the debate he was “impressed” by Dean’s success in building momentum toward winning the nomination, but added “the American people now have to examine the statements Howard Dean makes about our security, about our prosperity, and our trade policy and decide whether he has the experience, the strength of leadership and the ability to calmly make decisions under pressure and take our country forward. That is exactly the same set of judgments I expect to be subjected to.”

Asked whether he wanted to be remembered “as the guy who knocked off Howard Dean,” Lieberman told MSNBC.com, “I want to be remembered as the candidate who said to the American people what he sincerely believed was right for our country’s future, regardless of whether it was politically popular at a given moment.”

Lieberman almost sounded as if he were prepared to lose the nomination in order to prevent Dean from winning it and becoming president.

Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe said after the event that the Lieberman-Dean sparring was mild compared to the way George Bush had attacked Arizona Sen. John McCain when the two men were competing for the 2000 GOP nomination. Thursday night’s debate was not, McAuliffe said, an event where the rivals “ripped each other to shreds.” He predicted the intra-party fighting “is going to get rougher as we got toward Iowa and New Hampshire,” the first two Democratic contests next year. He said he had directed the Democratic Leadership Council, a business-friendly group of Democrats who have compared Dean to losing Democratic candidates of the past, George McGovern and Walter Mondale, to not issue any more statements attacking Dean.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who prior to the debate had been expected by some pundits to intensify his attacks on Dean, remained a non-combatant in the Dean-Lieberman hostilities.

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Reporters, pollsters and party activists have deemed Dean the favorite for the nomination, partly on the strength of his extraordinary fund-raising success, although a new poll released Wednesday in the early primary state of South Carolina showed that about one half of likely Democratic primary voters are still uncommitted to any candidate.

KUCINICH SCOFFING: ‘HELLO?!’

As he had in previous joint appearances, Rep. Dennis Kucinich pressed his attack on Dean from the left. Referring scornfully to Dean, he said, “You can talk about balancing the budget in Vermont. But Vermont doesn’t have a military. And if you are not going to cut the military and you are talking about balancing the budget, then what are you going to do about social spending? Hello?!”

Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt made a strong showing in the debate by repeatedly using the phrase, “This president is a miserable failure,” to the delight of the audience.

Most of the contenders agreed that Bush needs to form an international coalition under United Nations aegis to provide more foreign troops to impose order in Iraq and all blamed Bush for not doing adequate post-war planning for Iraq.

But they disagreed on whether more American soldiers were needed in Iraq.

Lieberman said he would send more U.S. troops “because the troops that are there need that protection.”

Kerry said, “I disagree with Joe Lieberman and others. We should not send more American troops. That would be the worst thing. We do not want to have more Americanization, we do not want a greater sense of American occupation.” Kerry urged Bush to “do everything possible” to persuade other countries to share the burden of policing Iraq.

Dean said, “We need more troops. They’re going to be foreign troops, as they should have been in the first place, not American troops. Ours need to come home.”

Florida Sen. Bob Graham said Bush had “an obligation to speak candidly to the American people” and to answer the question, “What is our exit strategy? How will we leave Iraq?” But he offered no suggestions of his own for answering those questions.

None of the candidates addressed head on the question of what the United States should do if — for their own reasons — foreign governments simply decide not to contribute any peace-keeping troops to the Iraq occupation.

KERRY TAX CRITICISM

In an appearance at a Head Start center in Albuquerque a few hours before the forum, Kerry renewed the criticism of Dean and Gephardt that he has voiced over the past few weeks.

“Getting rid of the entire Bush tax cut as Mr. Dean and Mr. Gephardt want to do is the wrong policy for America. We Democrats fought hard to protect the middle class, we Democrats fought hard to provide a tax cut to the middle class. If you do as Howard Dean wants to do, a family earning $40,000 is going to pay an additional $2,000 in taxes. I think that’s the wrong policy for America.”

The debate seemed to leave unanswered questions about the next stage of the Democratic contest: Will Lieberman establish himself as the anti-Dean? Will his strategy of pointed attacks on Dean weaken Dean and strengthen Lieberman or will it have the reverse effect? And is an opening now developing for another candidate who gains ground by remaining calmly above the Dean-Lieberman fray?

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